A study has been conducted which examines depression and computer usage. The researchers evaluated participant’s indications of depressive characteristics and correlated those to computer usage. People who viewed email compulsively, or viewed a lot of videos on-line also showed signs of depression. The report concludes with recommendations for a software to alert users of depressive behaviors. Any intervention or awareness regarding mental illness is a good thing. But before we start organizing a keyboard awareness day or choosing a color for our ribbons and rubber bracelets, let’s consider this study.
Isn’t the very crux of depression that of an inward orientation? Are we at all surprised that people who are depressed are not out in the world socializing? Isn’t the desire to turn on the computer actually a positive sign? (Versus drawing the curtains and taking to one’s bed?) Virtual connections are virtual, but sure beat cutting off all contact with the world. Why would the researches make such a concerted effort to ignore the possibility that increased screen time leads to depression? I’m not trying to start a rumor or anything, but could it be that they were funded by a mental health software company.
In the end, all this internet sound and fury is reminiscent of the Great Television Scare or Video Game Scourge of years past. Comic books, dime store novels and packs of sen-sen conjured these same fears once. None of these trends/novelites have the power to ruin.
Depression is an illness it is not an allergic reaction to circumstances. Do people enter a depressive state due to cataclysmic life events? Certainly. But that is a depressive state not depression. Potato Potahto? Not exactly. There are many serious differences between a normative response to sad and/or traumatic events and that of a state of being. For one thing a depressive state has a beginning, middle and end and a cause. Knowing there is a cause to feeling so bad is the difference between night and day. Having your world close in and become gray and fuzzy for no discernible reason is both frightening and self-perpetuating. Our natural inclination is to move towards pleasure and away from pain. If you can not see pleasure, if everything you see and feel is dark and thick and unrelenting, you’ve no reason to believe that there is a different world. The darkness is the reality and it can be difficult to claw your way towards something you can’t detect.
Social isolation can certainly exacerbate depression. Humans (even the most anti-social of us) are meant to interact. (As a species we would perish without the desire to mingle.) However people with depressive tendencies are a diverse group. Their depression can be triggered or worsened by physical changes (hormonal transitions, illness, sleep deprivation, etc.) by life changes (moving, job changes, marriage, divorce, etc.) by nature (cycles of the moon, seasons, etc.) or by a myriad of other triggers/events. That said, as an illness whose hallmark is inward focus, forced external interaction can be very effective. Volunteer work can alleviate symptoms of depression. It would seem that the very act of doing something for someone else, gives the brain a break from its persevering.
Living in a culture which extols the virtue of self above all else is powerful nourishment for the growth of depression. If we were to pay attention to all the messaging, we should be painstakingly obsessing over every body part/function and moment in our lives. We are to chronicle every; party, meal, trip, pee stick, grade promotion, softball game, and sonogram to the world and thereby give us the patina of great significance (Because It Happened To Us.) We are encouraged not to experience life and its many moments, but to “create memories.” So much self-consciousness is not good for the self. Isn’t it a culture of; “your special day” “best snack provider-friendliest-rookie-player trophy” and general sense of entitlement that is far more socially isolating than technology?
When the first books were mass printed, the townspeople were up in arms. What would happen to communal oral storytelling traditions. There goes the neighborhood! The first home radios caused some anxiety no doubt. Families were now holed up in their living rooms staring at a box. Little did they know, that box-staring was just beginning. Television took people out of communal movie theaters (which were/are communal only in the sense of shared germs, smells and noise, not in any actual ‘communing’) Personal music devices were said to be bad, yet I have never seen a campaign to bring back the boom-box, and I’ve never quite understood how the iPod affects behavior any differently than transistor radios did.
Invention and innovation do not come from the sky to do evil to our land. They are not the flying monkeys. Products/progress succeeds because there is a hunger that it satiates. The fact that consumers represent the population and are thus diverse and include those with mental illness, is expected. How one behaves, with or without technology will always be a lens into an individual’s inner workings. Unfortunately it will always be far more tempting to design research or blame which looks to demonize the new and inanimate. Mental illness, criminal behavior, gambling and pornography obsession are real issues. Spending our valuable resources to shout; “No, no, look over here, the internet is to blame” does not seem wise.
*The Music Man – Meredith Wilson (1957)